Special Reports

Muhammad's attorney attacks effort to put sniper case in federal court

GREENBELT, Md. - John Allen Muhammad's lawyer derided the government's extortion charges against the sniper suspect Tuesday, accusing prosecutors of overreaching in order to make a federal case out of the murder spree.

The lawyer's claims came as a federal judge ordered Muhammad held without bail.

Federal prosecutors brought charges against Muhammad last week under weapons and extortion law in the October sniper attacks that killed 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area. He could get the death penalty.

In court, federal public defender James Wyda accused prosecutors of trying to "shoehorn this case into federal courts" in using the extortion law. He said the government is trying to prove that "these seemingly random attacks were all motivated by a crackpot scheme to collect $10 million."

Wyda noted that authorities did not even receive a note demanding the money until Oct. 19, well into the shooting spree.

"This is no longer a murder case; this is an extortion case," he said outside court. "They can't prove extortion. They can't meet their burden of proof in making this a federal case."

In arguing against bail, federal prosecutor James Trusty told Chief Magistrate Judge Jillyn K. Schulze that Muhammad, 41, used multiple names and birth dates and had been living out of a car.

The other sniper suspect, 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, was ordered detained Monday after appearing at a closed juvenile hearing in federal court in Baltimore. Federal charges have also apparently been brought against Malvo, but authorities will not say so because he is a juvenile.

The two men have been accused of shooting 17 people, killing 12 and wounding five in Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. No one was hit in another shooting that went through a craft store window.

Wyda said authorities have not asked his client for a handwriting sample to attempt to link him to the note.

"The government's case has significant problems," Wyda said. "There's no direct evidence that Mr. Muhammad was at the scene of any of these crimes."

Police nationwide continue to review old shootings to see if there are any links to the sniper suspects.

Muhammad is suspected in the death of 21-year-old Keenya Cook, who was shot to death Feb. 16 on the doorstep of her aunt and uncle's home in Tacoma home.

Authorities in Tucson, Ariz., said Tuesday they're probing the fatal shooting of a golfer in March, while Prince George's County, Md., police said ballistics tests were being done on evidence from two September shootings.

The FBI notified Tucson police Friday that Muhammad and Malvo arrived there in mid-March to visit Muhammad's sister, then a Tucson resident.

Jerry R. Taylor, 60, was shot while practicing chip shots. The weapon was believed to be a rifle. Taylor's wounds indicated he was shot from a distance, police said. There were no witnesses.

News Tribune staff contributed to this report.